Mahsuda Snaith is a writer of novels and short stories from Leicester. Her debut novel The Things We Thought We Knew was published by Black Swan (a Penguin Random House imprint) in 2017. Her second novel How to Find Home was published in May 2019 (by Penguin imprint, Doubleday). It is a book which focuses on the life of a young homeless woman in the East Midlands and has been described as ‘a brilliant novel that humanises people who are so often dehumanised . . . Unflinchingly honest.’
She was named an Observer New Face of Fiction 2017.
So much of the time, aspiring writers think about the joy of getting a first novel published. How does writing a second novel compare? How are the challenges different?
I was lucky (though it sounds unlucky) that it took a long time for my first novel to get published. While I was sending it out and getting feedback, I’d already started researching How to Find Home and by the time I got my two-book deal I’d finished the research and early drafts. The challenges for the second novel were that, while for the first novel I worked to my own deadlines and had all the time in world to complete it, suddenly I had to write and redraft very quickly with the knowledge that someone was waiting to see the finished result. It was nerve-wracking and there was a lot of work to do with my editor, but the brilliant thing about having an editor is you get that regular feedback so things can move faster. When you’re writing your first novel you’re pretty much on your own, stumbling through the dark. That’s why having a writing group or friends who can give feedback is so important.
How far ahead do you plan projects? Is your 3rd novel already in your head?
I’m always thinking of the next project – usually when I’m in the middle of another one! My best ideas either come when I don’t have pen or when I have no time to begin them.
That’s why I have scores of notebooks, each one for different story ideas and projects, so that I can jot them down and add to them as more details come along and save them for later. The other week I had a dream that inspired a whole idea for a play, but I know it’s going to be some time before I’ll be able to write it so I’ve jotted it down in a notebook and put it away!
The third novel has been in my head for a while. It’s from a failed novel I wrote after I finished university. I made lots of mistakes (rewriting the opening again and again until it didn’t make sense) and had to abandon it, but now I think I could go back and rewrite it using all the skills in writing I’ve gained since. This is why I think you should never throw anything out as a writer. Just because an idea doesn’t work at one point in your life doesn’t mean it won’t be useful later.
Your second novel How to Find Home is about Molly, who has lived on the streets for a decade. What inspired you to write about homelessness?
I’ve always been interested in underrepresented stories and always wondered about the people who I see sitting in their sleeping bags on the streets. My mum was very frugal, she bought everything in bulk and in the sale, but she would always have money for the homeless, which meant I was made aware of the issue from a young age. Then, years later, I watched a drama series based on true events with characters who were homeless and sex workers and it shattered the preconceptions I had about those groups. More importantly, it made me want to know more. Soon after, Molly popped up as a side character in one of my works-in-progress and I began wondering about what she was doing when I wasn’t writing about her. Her story grew in my mind until I soon realised she needed a whole novel to herself.
What was the research process for How to Find Home?
I knew that if I was going to write about a marginalised group that I wasn’t a part of, I really needed to do my research. Homeless people are already misrepresented in the media and I didn’t want to add to any stereotypes. So I read scores of books and watched lots of documentaries, then I volunteered in a soup kitchen and a charity that works with sex workers, before teaming up with Writing East Midlands on their Write Here! residency programme and Pedestrian, Leicester to deliver creative writing workshops in a homeless hostel. I learnt so much at each experience, namely that everyone’s stories of how they ended up on the streets were different and how it only takes a few things to go wrong in person’s life for them to end up on the streets. I also heard some brilliant stories, funny and heart-breaking. Without talking to those people, I really wouldn’t have been able to write the book.
How does being from the East Midlands impact your work?
I think the region you grow up in is so important to your work as an artist because that’s where you heard the local accents, felt the local passions, spoke to the people and heard their histories. That stuff can’t help but influence you. That’s why I use local places as my settings (my first book is set in Leicester, my second in Nottingham and Skegness). There’s already many novels set in London but I think the rest of the country need to be represented too. I’m particularly proud of being from such a diverse city as Leicester because I learnt so much about other cultures from around the world and my experience of overt racism has been minimal. When I talk to other people brought up in other areas, I realise this is quite rare.
We recently shared an article by Kit de Waal which showed that although the average writer in the UK earns only around £10,000, the average writer household earns £80,000. Do you think the writing career is accessible as it should be?
Not yet. I grew up on a council estate so my family’s priority was always for us to get a job with a regular income so we could get out of that situation. A writing career, and working in the arts as a freelancer in general, can be very precarious, as you don’t know when the next cheque is coming. For a long time, I only managed by working part-time as a supply teacher and using the skills my mother taught me of living very frugally! Even now as a published writer, I have some difficult months, and I imagine there are a lot of other professional writers in the same position. But opportunities and organisations such as Writing East Midlands are out there for writers to help and support them. You need to root them out, but sometimes the perfect commission or workshop comes along that can really help you stay afloat. And having a dogged determination to make things work really does help too.
Writing East Midlands is celebrating it’s 10th birthday later this year. Has WEM had any impact in your writing journey? Do you have any fond memories we could share of you and WEM?
Writing East Midlands has been vital in my journey to becoming a professional writer. I’ve been a student on their Writing School courses, attended professional development opportunities, been to the conferences where I’ve met other writers and had one-to-one meetings with agents as well as worked for them as a writer in residence which enabled me to write my second novel. Having a regional writing development agency is so important because they can help those writers I talked about in my previous answer by informing them about opportunities, giving them experiences they might not have had access to by themselves and creating networks with other local writers. I really believe writing should be open to anyone who has a pen and paper. It shouldn’t be elitist and you shouldn’t need lots of money to do it. Writing East Midlands really helps so many writers who might otherwise think they have no place trying to make writing a career, by creating and sharing opportunities, events and workshops. They do an amazing and invaluable job.
How to Find Home is in bookshops from 23rd May 2019.